The medical plastics market, measured in sales or resin volume, will grow in the neighborhood of 5-7 percent a year for the next several years, according to several sources and studies.
Not that it will be a business without challenges. Consolidation of medical device makers and price pressures will continue to squeeze the industry, but generally, advances in medical technology will keep pushing growth, said Len Czuba, director for the medical sector at Chicago design firm Herbst Lazar Bell Inc.
Others share Czuba's modest optimism. The U.S. medical device market for plastic components, which generates sales of about $2 billion a year, is growing at about 7 percent a year, according to Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical Co. projections.
Resin consumption in the total U.S. medical market will grow 5.8 percent a year through 2004, says a study from Business Communications Co. Inc. And, Cleveland-based Freedonia Group Inc. predicts 5.3 percent annual growth in the same period for disposable medical products, which include significant plastic applications.
Rob Braido, health-care market development manager for GW Plastics Inc. in Bethel, Vt., projects 15 percent growth for his firm's medical custom injection molding business. The company is adding clean room molding to its plants in Tucson, Ariz., and South Royalton, Vt., driven mostly by medical business, he said.
But Bruce Jorgensen, vice president of sales and marketing for Rexam Medical Packaging in Mundelein, Ill., is not quite as bullish. He projects closer to 2-3 percent North American sales growth, as the health-care market looks to pinch pennies. Globally, the growth is faster.
"You get into a situation where business gets transferred offshore," said Jorgensen. "There's price deflation. People are turning the screws on price."
Customers may reduce the thickness of parts or try to substitute cheaper materials, he said. A Freedonia study of pharmaceutical packaging predicted annual growth under 4 percent through 2004, less than overall projections for medical disposables.
Medical plastics processor conferences lately have focused on medical molders adding services and becoming more like custom medical device makers. In particular, discussions have centered around getting molders involved in design work for medical devices.
But one contract medical device manufacturer with injection molding and extrusion capabilities said it has been burned too many times with that approach.
"We are focusing more on the [intellectual property] phase," said Adam Sanford, chief executive officer of Adam Spence Corp. in Wall, N.J.
Six times in the past three years Spence was significantly involved in a product's design, manufactured it for a year or two, and then, when volume got high enough, the medical device firm took the manufacturing in-house, he said. So he plans to focus on proprietary products and get involved in owning part of a product's rights, in areas like cardiology, airway management and radiology, he said.
A trend cited by several sources is the miniaturization of medical technology.
"One of the things that will really push markets is miniaturization of components," Braido said. "Small to micro molding is finally going to start seeing some growth."
Bruce Ginder, president of Mack Design Inc. in West Henrietta, N.Y., echoed that. He said his firm is seeing increased electronics use in medical devices as a way to automate and save labor. For example, electronics put into an IV can regulate fluid delivery, he said.
Freedonia's study said the fastest-growing segment of medical disposables will be home health care, growing 9.4 percent a year through 2004. That sounds good, but since those products do not require as much government approval, there is more overseas manufacturing and price competition, Ginder said.
Dow's Karen Winkler, medical industry manager for engineering thermoplastics, said mature commodity markets are probably growing 4 percent a year, while new devices are growing faster. Hot markets for Dow include novel drug-delivery methods, elder care and alternate-site care, she said.
GW's Braido, who used to manage prototyping at Johnson & Johnson's Ethicon Endo-Surgery Inc., said medical devices also will get more ergonomic.
"There is a trend toward streamlining design, such as more rounded corners in the medical area," he said. "A lot of companies are trying to make their products more appealing to doctors. The health-care industry will offer more products with finer lines, curves and more ergonomic designs."
There's another reason to pay attention to design issues, Braido said: About 70 percent of a product's final cost is determined in the design phase.